Turkey’s al-Bab campaign and Abdullah Öcalan

Turkey’s al-Bab campaign and Abdullah Öcalan

Terrorist attacks have intensified after President Erdoğan’s statement on Turkey’s willingness to enter Syria’s city of al-Bab, considered to be one of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) bastions. On Nov. 16, Erdoğan said the Turkish military would soon engage in the al-Bab operation along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). On Nov. 24, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), perpetrated a bomb attack in the southern province of Adana. On Dec. 10, the heart of Istanbul, Beşiktaş, was targeted with twin bombings. Lastly, on Dec. 17, TAK claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri. All of these terrorist attacks are closely related to the al-Bab assault conducted by the Turkish army. 

But, why is al-Bab so important for the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish ally, the People’s Protection Units (YPG)?

Many analysts claim that the main reason why the YPG gives so much importance to al-Bab is that the eventual capture of the city by the Kurdish forces would inevitably lead to the formation of an independent Kurdish state in Syria, sponsored mainly by the PKK and Western powers. Although this assertion is correct, it is also incomplete.

The creation of an “independent” PKK-sponsored state in Syria would surely internationally legitimize the PKK as a “national and regular army,” but most significantly, it would also put PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan’s detention in jeopardy. 

“How is that so?” You might ask. 

YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD has organic ties with the PKK. Its leader, Saleh Moslem, considers Abdullah Öcalan as his spiritual and political frontrunner. The PKK has offered substantial support to YPG forces during the Syrian civil war. As a result, thinking of the YPG as a somewhat satellite of the PKK would still be appropriate. Given that the unconditional leader of the PKK is Abdullah Öcalan, a creation of an independent Kurdish state in Syria would certainly have serious implications on Öcalan’s current status. Moslem once stated in a speech he delivered in Strasbourg that their “resistance” would go on until Öcalan is set free. Undoubtedly, a Kurdish state in Syria could make that happen.

If al-Bab was to be captured by Kurdish forces, cantons in Syria’s northwest and northeast could merge into one unified state. An independent state, however, requires a political leader, a head of state. For now, Abdullah Öcalan seems to be the best candidate for this job. But how exactly could Öcalan be elected as the head of a state while still in prison? 

The scenario is simple: a Kurdish state sponsored by the PKK and the YPG would be formed and internationally recognized, its so-called parliament would elect Öcalan as its head of state and claim his position to be the “head of state in exile.” Once the state is formed, “representatives” would call on the United Nations to act in accordance with international law and force Turkey to liberate Öcalan. This is the PKK’s main strategy and this is why Turkey’s al-Bab campaign is crucial. In order to prick this bubble, Turkey has to act now, fast and effectively.